Published July 1, 2006 | July 2006 issue
Hoping to create high-paying jobs in a chronically depressed region of the state, the Department of Labor and Industry has launched a three-year campaign to foster a homegrown ag processing industry.
Funded with a $15 million federal grant, the WIRED Montana project would train workers in eastern and central Montana for "bioproduct manufacturing clusters"—groups of related firms that transform crops such as canola and safflower into food or industrial products. Through workshops offered by community and tribal colleges, WIRED would also help farmers and rural investors start their own processing plants. The grant from the U.S. Department of Labor focuses on worker training in distressed labor markets.
The WIRED project area, comprising 32 counties and six Indian Reservations, is certainly distressed. An aging, declining population is increasingly reliant on federal farm subsidies. Poverty is entrenched.
But trained bioproducts workers and entrepreneurs may have trouble putting their newly acquired skills to use. Montana has only two oilseed processing plants—Peak and Prairies LLC of Malta, which develops biolubricants, and an oilseed refining plant in Culbertson, owned by Sustainable Systems of Missoula. Because of a dearth of ag processing jobs in the state, graduates of bioproducts programs at Montana colleges and universities have had little choice but to leave their home state.